Power lines and poles are the single biggest threat to our public safety.

These are the comments I made at the October 24 City Council meeting regarding citywide undergrounding of utilities:

We sit here tonight in the week that marks 24 years from the 1993 fire that ravaged our community and destroyed 440 homes.  We sit here tonight less than three weeks after the deadliest fires in California history in the Wine Country claimed 42 lives, burned more than 246,000 acres and destroyed at least 8400 structures.   While the official cause of the fires has not yet been announced, there have been numerous reports that downed power lines were involved in starting or spreading several of the fires.   As reported in this LA Times article, which staff will reference in the presentation, power lines are a leading wildfire cause.     

Most of us know and agree that fire is the greatest public safety risk that we face as a city.  And I know, and have spoken to many in our community who agree, that above ground utility lines are an imminent threat to our public safety every day.  As documented in tonight’s agenda item, in the last 10 years we have had 5 fires sparked by utility lines and on Laguna Canyon Road alone 58 vehicles crashing into polls, often closing the road for extended periods.  So far we have avoided a catastrophic fire but how long will our luck hold?

As difficult as it may be to think about the consequences of another major fire in Laguna, imagine with me for a moment how utility poles and lines could create devastation in our community.  The Santa Ana winds are blowing and lines go down sparking fires in one or more neighborhoods.  Or a major earthquake hits and downed power lines spark fires or ruptured gas lines spark fires which then spread to the power poles and transformers begin to explode as they did in 1993.  Residents are trapped in their homes or trapped in their vehicles as they try to escape a firestorm.  But they can’t evacuate because downed poles and wires on Bluebird Canyon Road block the escape from Bluebird Canyon neighborhoods, downed poles and wires obstruct the escape route on Park Ave, Top of the World and Temple Hills neighbors likewise are trapped by downed poles and wires on Thalia, Woods Cove and Diamond Crestview residents are stuck behind downed poles on Glenneyre and South PCH, North Laguna residents are trapped by downed poles on Monterey and downed poles and wires block Laguna Canyon Road trapping Laguna Canyon residents and preventing others from using the inland escape route.  And these blocked escape routes mean something else—our fire and police personnel can’t get to the fires.  The risk of one of these tragic scenarios playing out is all too real.    

We sit here tonight two years into a concentrated effort to gain the cooperation of the utility companies to expedite undergrounding in the city.  That effort began the night of the July 3, 2015 fire in Laguna Canyon sparked by downed utility lines when I wrote a letter to the President of SCE asking him to meet and begin a cooperative effort to underground utilities throughout the City.  We met and had similar meetings with SDG&E. Neither utility was willing to think outside the box to find creative solutions to undergrounding the City.  

The unwillingness of the utility companies to partner with us, their aggressive attack on our undergrounding ordinance and opposition to our efforts at the California Public Utilities Commission leave us with only one alternative—to shoulder the burden ourselves and develop a locally funded plan to underground the entire City.Councilmember Zur Schmiede and I have been working with staff to develop a plan for undergrounding that is multi-faceted as you will see from tonight’s agenda item and I want to commend staff for the work that they have done so far on this critical issue.  

This is a watershed moment for our City and I believe that we need to be bold in our proposals to address this number one threat to public safety.  It is my view, and I am joined in this by Councilmember Zur Schmiede, that we must present the voters in 2018 with ballot measures to underground the entire city.    As a subcommittee we will be working on the details of these measures in the coming weeks to present back to Council.   An important component of this plan will be to commit City dollars on an annual basis to significantly reduce the cost for residents.  My goal is to develop a plan that will reduce costs to residents by 25% to 35% from what they have paid in previous assessment districts.

This plan will be expensive in terms of absolute dollars, probably $150 to  $200 million, but in a relative sense I submit that this is actually a modest investment given what is at stake.  Of course you can never put a price on human life so if these improvements ultimately save the life one of our family members or neighbors I say it is worth it.  But this type of expenditure also makes sense given the value of our homes and businesses.  Real property and improvements in Laguna are assessed at $13 billion under Prop 13 but the market value easily exceeds $20 billion.  So an investment of $200 million, or 1% of the value of the property at risk, is a small price to pay to eliminate a major public safety risk permanently and protect our families and our homes from a major catastrophe. 

I know that Councilmember Zur Schmiede has some comments and thoughts that he wants to share and I really appreciate the effort that he has put into this issue as a Subcommittee member and look forward to continuing to work with him towards a viable plan for the city.